The Importance of Empathy in Decreasing Social Anxiety

Cartoon Illustrating Empathy

Individuals who suffer from social anxiety don’t attend social events or reach out to others for fear of being rejected, or ridiculed. A person can become a total shut in, never leave their home, quit their job, even have to get on disability. Most individuals who are socially anxious avoid social interactions, and therefore don’t allow themselves opportunities to learn how to interact with others successfully. The more they isolate, the less socially capable they become as their social skills begin to atrophy. This leads to even more isolation, fear of rejection, low self worth and loneliness.

One of the most important lines of defense against social anxiety is learning to build empathy. If you suffer with social anxiety and difficulty connecting with others, consider this: anxiety and self consciousness turn an individual inward, and cause a person to always be on the defensive (against rejection, humiliation, threats from others). When you are on the defensive and turned inward, very little psychic energy is available for much else. You are closed up, and unavailable to absorb the world outside you in an adaptive/positive or even accurate way. Everything is seen in terms of threatening or nonthreatening and not much else. In seeing others only as unflattering mirrors of yourself, you overlook the person that they are. This does not mean you are a selfish person, it just means that too much of your mind’s space is devoted to keeping yourself safe, and unavailable for other things such as connecting.

Empathy is the opposite of being turned inward. It is the ability to see another person for who he/she is, and feeling what they might be feeling, finding another perspective through the eyes of another person. This is an important skill to develop if you suffer from social anxiety because it is the first point of true connection with someone else. Socially anxious people have the ability to empathize, they just don’t use it in social settings because of immobilizing fear. Yet if you let yourself empathize for a moment with someone else, you may find that your anxiety begins to subside. What makes other people frightening to a socially anxious person is one (and only one) facet about them; their ability to be rejecting or mean. However there are many other facets to a person and these are what the socially anxious person is unable to process. In getting to know these other facets through empathy, the person is no longer such a threat. Understanding anything is the key to stop fearing it, and this concept also applies to other people.

Once you begin to empathize you may be able to collect new information about people that you didn’t have at your disposal before, information that could reduce anxiety for you. For example, upon closer inspection of another person’s feelings and experiences through talk, you may begin to pick up that this person is also afraid of rejection, or that they are having a bad day today. With this new information you would also know that if this person appears aloof or abrupt with you, the blame is not attributable to you, rather to their internal state. In other words, you don’t take it on and make it about you. You have a better understanding of why they are acting that way.

When you empathize with others and try to see their perspective independent of your beliefs or how you feel, you also invite a connection. Others simply like you more when they know that you are trying to listen to them and understand them. They want to open up to you. When they do begin to open up you can find a point of connection, something in common perhaps. It may well be that what they are feeling and thinking is similar to your own internal life, opening a window for you to talk about your experiences with them. This is when a connection begins to happen. This point of connection may lead to a friendship, an acquaintance, or nothing at all. The important thing is that you were able to relate with someone else, and not just see them as a source of harm or humiliation, rather as a person.

Here are some good ways to begin practicing empathizing with others:

1. Understand and carry with you the idea that other people are as vulnerable as you are. They too risk rejection every time they talk to someone. They too have insecurities and feelings of inadequacy about something. If your anxiety level is very high in social situations, you may need to just practice this insight with yourself every time you look at another person for a few weeks before you go on to the other steps below.

2. Before initiating a conversation, first observe if the other person is in a talking mood. This is going to be your first practice at the art of empathy. Pay attention to nonverbal language. Try to decipher whether this person is irritable, happy, stressed, open to talking, needing an outlet, or too busy, etc..

3. When conversing with the individual, ask questions about them and really listen to what they have to say. Don’t just think about what you’re going to say next. In fact, don’t think about yourself at all. Absorb more information about the other person and try to put yourself into their shoes. What must they be feeling? What has their day been like? You can start with very surface questions and begin to delve deeper. Surface questions can be anything from “How’s it going?” to “How was your weekend?”. Deeper questions could be “Do you like the rain?”, or “What do you think of (insert news story or football team, etc here)?” Make sure your questions are appropriate and related to the setting that you are in. For instance, don’t just walk up to someone you don’t know and ask them what their favorite movie is. This will seem odd, and awkward. Ease your way into the conversation with the usual “Hello, my name is—” or “How are you?” questions.

4. Convey your understanding of the other person by letting them know that you get it, that you can see their point of view. Reflect back to them what you gleaned from what they said by saying “So you feel/think —-). Sometimes this is all you have to do to initiate a connection. People always appreciate being seen and heard. People typically enjoy conversations more when they can shine and show themselves to you. If you can reflect someone accurately and in a flattering way, then you’re likely to make a good impression, open the door to getting to know the person better, and vice versa.

If you or someone you know is suffering from social anxiety, getting in contact with a therapist can be a daunting and difficult task. For the social anxiety sufferer, the first meeting with a therapist can be just as anxiety provoking as going to a gathering, or meeting up with a friend that one hasn’t seen for a long time. It is important to find a therapist that is welcoming, warm, and puts the person at ease in their first meeting.